The structure of a story: beginning, middle, and end

Elvis Elvis

Structure is simple: beginning, middle, and end. That’s your basic three-act form. Short stories are sometimes difficult to imagine in this way. They are internal, complex, multi-faceted creatures that often refuse to conform to structure.

But even the most bizarre, back-folding, story-as-orgami experimental metafiction has these three elements. In some order or another.

Beginning, middle, and end.

Even if you flatly refuse to outline (as I did for years), you can do yourself a huge favor – and avoid endless meandering through the minefields of plotlessness – by charting your story’s most basic points. At the very least, have some idea of how your story will end, and keep it in mind as you work. It will probably change. In fact, strike the “probably.” It will change. But you will at least have some idea where you’re going.

Even the most complex stories seem simple as fairy tales when described this way. The classic Stephen King short story, Sometimes They Come Back, is a good, clear example of this basic structure.

The beginning:

Jim Norman, haunted by the childhood murder of his younger brother, gets a job at a tough inner city school. One by one, his favorite students die – and are replaced by the seventeen-year-old boys who knifed Wayne under a train overpass sixteen years ago.

The structure of a story: beginning, middle, and end

The middle:

Confronting the boys, Jim discovers that they all died shortly after the murder. They’ve returned because they consider him “unfinished business.” After the boys kill his wife, Jim decides to fight back … using their own dark and supernatural means against them.

The end:

Jim summons up his own demon to deal with the demonic boys. The creature takes care of his problem … but you really can’t trust demons, can you? They lie. They deceive.

And sometimes, they come back.

There’s more depth and fine detail in the story itself, of course – much of it King’s masterful evocation of spooky atmosphere. King has repeatedly stated he does not use outlines, but I’m betting he at least knew that Jim was going to defeat the demon boys, and that the victory would be a mixed blessing.

Much of the tone of your story is dictated by its outcome. If you have a cheerful, bright fantasy like one of Piers Anthony’s Xanth books, but evil wins in the end, you’ve got a problem – the kind of problem that makes agents and editors pass on your manuscript.

Start simple – beginning, middle, and end. Then expand. You’ll still have plenty of freedom within that basic framework.